August 19, 2021. Our program featured Deborah Bigelow, sister of Easton Rotarian Gordon Bigelow. Deborah received a Rotary International Technical Training award which she credits for helping launch her career. Whilst earning a college degree in Art History, she chanced to take a course in calligraphy which allowed her to land a job immediately after graduation. It was there at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore that she discovered museums had labs where science and art combine to care for works of art. That was the moment she knew what she wanted to do for her career.
The State of New York hired her to work in their first Conservation Center and the move to New York began a life-long love affair with New York City and the Hudson River Valley. The 34 sites covered by the Center included the historic home of Robert Livingston who served as our country’s first Ambassador to France. He returned to the United States with a carved and gilded eagle which is thought to be the model for the Great Seal of the United Sates.
Her first project was the restoration of that eagle which was badly worn and missing pieces. She discovered there was little or no information on how to accomplish such a restoration. Deborah took an apprenticeship with a cabinet maker and met a client who was establishing the American Wing in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. She determined she should study her craft in England where craft traditions are trained in guilds and supported culturally. She applied for and received the Rotary Scholarship after an interview with the District Governor and team from District 7210. The Rotary Club of London provided a warm welcome and she earned her degree at the London College of Furniture. Whilst there, she managed to secure an internship at the Victoria and Albert Museum where she studied with Malcolm Green who was the only gilding conservator in the world. Green became a lifelong mentor and friend, Deborah returned to the US and opened a business in Newburgh, NY.
Her contacts brought her numerous customers from across the country, and she often had to travel to work on-site. She spearheaded a symposium in Philadelphia that brought speakers from around the world including Alexander Kossolapov, who was the Head of Conservation at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The interaction at the Symposium helped her establish a partnership and she started working for the Walter De Maria Enterprises who needed gilders.
She worked on three site specific projects. Her favorite project is in Kansas City and is called One Sun 34 Moons. Two projects wound up in Japan on Naoshima Island which is dedicated to contemporary art. The second Naoshima project took 1 years to cut and lay the perfect pieces of gold leaf. She wrapped up her golden career in San Francisco restoring an 18th Century gilded room for the Salon Dore for the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum. Her Rotary scholarship is proof that helping one person might not change the whole world, but it could change the world for one person. Many thanks to Deborah for sharing her story.